Cover Story: Searching for Sweet Auburn”

Will Auburn Avenue’s bold new future leave room for the street’s historic past?

Sweet Auburn is dead. Long live Sweet Auburn.

What may seem like contradiction is reality on Atlanta’s most historic street. After decades of decay, Auburn Avenue is a street of dreams again. The boulevard that birthed Martin Luther King Jr. and the modern Civil Rights Movement is overdue for its overhaul. The $98 million Atlanta streetcar promises new blood, new energy, and new money. But along one short stretch of those 2.7 miles of track lies plenty of ambivalence surrounding the coming change.

Most coverage about the streetcar has questioned the repeated delays, the ever-rising cost, and the likelihood that it will generate a Downtown renaissance. But it’s the potential cultural impact to Auburn Avenue that has driven my curiosity.

So I started a walking tour a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t go to the King National Historic Site, King’s birth home, or Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he shared the pulpit with his father during his final years. Instead, I stuck to the commercial heart of the historic district, between Courtland Street and Jackson Street, where the streetcar tracks angle south toward Edgewood Avenue.

The only guide I used to navigate was the thin line of compromise between revitalization and preservation.

I talked to people from different walks of life: mom-and-pop store owners, barbers, new-school entrepreneurs, maintenance men, old-school hustlers, a real estate developer, a former addict, an immigrant club owner, a ‘hood-famous rapper, an accidental museum curator. Some expressed hope; others, bitterness. But the one commonality they seem to share is a collective investment in the future of Auburn — even if they have different ideas about what it should look like.

“People get ready

There’s a train a-coming

Don’t need no baggage

You just get on board”

“People Get Ready,” Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions

A hundred years of history lurk on every corner of Auburn Avenue, waiting to be uncovered. My first stop isn’t actually on Auburn but just down the block at 54 Hilliard St., where the Madame C.J. Walker Museum is located. Proprietor Ricci de Forest has invited me to come hear about his plan to salvage some of the avenue’s cultural heritage.

For the past decade, he has operated his 30-year-old salon from the former location of the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Shoppe, inside the Prince Hall Masons’ Grand Lodge. It was one of many beauty shops spawned by the early 20th-century hair care pioneer of the same name, who was believed to be America’s first self-made female millionaire when she died in 1919. According to de Forest, that’s not exactly true. Other black hair care pioneers achieved millionaire status first, including Annie Turnbo Malone, who educated Walker in the business. De Forest’s shop is full of artifacts from the era: turn-of-the-19th-century pressing combs and other tools of the trade fill glass cases alongside black-and-white photos of Walker, Malone, and other mavericks.

But that’s a whole other story.

I’m here today to hear de Forest’s plan to revive WERD, the country’s first black-owned and operated radio station.

“Auburn has no freaking flavor. It’s so sterile,” he says. “The thing I want for Auburn Avenue the most is for it to retain its flavor as it develops into what it’s going to be. I think music is the best way to do that.”

The Madame Museum sits just below the former location of WERD, which got its start in 1949 with on-air jockey Jack Gibson, later known as Jack the Rapper. In addition to housing WERD and the Madame Museum, the Masonic Lodge was also the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During Martin Luther King Jr.’s tenure as SCLC President, his office was on the floor below WERD. He would use the station as a platform whenever he needed to make announcements to the community.

De Forest is in the process of starting a campaign to raise $12,000 to revive WERD in the form of a performance space called WERD Radio Live. He wants to turn the radio station inside out and have the music filter through speakers along Auburn Avenue.

Over the past several years, de Forest has collected more than 10,000 vinyl albums, including classic jazz, early R&B, and blues. The shelves cover an entire wall of his shop.

“Miles, Monk, Coltrane,” de Forest says. “Everybody who’s anybody.”

A modern-day dandy, de Forest’s signature look includes a silk kerchief tied around his neck and his wavy hair pulled back in a knot, a style reflective of the era he holds in high regard. His neckerchief today is yellow, black and green — same colors as the flag of Jamaica, where he spends most of his vacation time.

He says that the more businesses in the district begin to embrace the history of Sweet Auburn, the more valuable it becomes. He burns classic jazz, blues, and soul from his extensive collection to mix-CDs and distributes them to nearby shops in the hope that they’ll eventually invest in outdoor speakers, too.

“We need to have a constant theme moving Auburn forward,” he says. “If you’re going to play some music, you’re on Auburn, why not play some music that the people in that era heard. Tourists are coming for the history first of all, so why not give them a piece of it?”

Nothing’s ironic on Auburn Avenue. Which is to say everything is. On a Tuesday morning in front of legendary chitlin circuit performance hall the Royal Peacock, four pigeons pick at the remnants of a fried chicken breast. There used to be a Church’s Chicken a couple of blocks down. Now it sits empty with a painted-over white exterior, the parking lot a frequent pit stop for the homeless.

It’s rush hour everywhere in the city but here. Men occasionally pass by on the sidewalk. The older ones wear backpacks but they aren’t students at nearby Georgia State University. Instead of books, they carry their lives’ belongings inside. A middle-aged black man strides by in a shirt and slacks. A shirtless white guy jogs up the opposite sidewalk.

The man I’m waiting for arrives in a big truck a few minutes after 9 a.m. with his daughter riding shotgun. Damien Gordon’s 40, but he talks with the energy of a man half his age. He opens a door and invites me inside the space underneath the Royal Peacock. It’s all two-by-fours and sawdust. He points around, directing my attention to the future VIP area, the future performance stage, the future bar banquette.

“You remember the movie Idlewild?” he says, referring to OutKast’s over-the-top multigenre musical set in a 1930s speakeasy. “That’s what this is. That is the actual feeling I want you to have when you walk in here. Custom drinks, button chairs, really nice comfortable chairs at the bar.”

The under-construction space is the future home of Swig, Gordon’s new supper club and members-only lounge, projected to open in September. Gordon is best known as the proprietor behind M Bar, the former Castleberry Hill lounge that sparked a nightlife scene among young black professionals several years ago in the Downtown neighborhood. An independent commercial builder and engineer, Gordon is building Swig himself, along with the new M Bar, which he’s bringing back in the space next door. Between both venues, he and his business partners are investing $500,000-$750,000.

Rather than rely on the streetcar to fortify his business, he plans to revive his former M Bar client base, which he says was always commuter-oriented. He hopes to connect them to the new space, in part, by establishing a wall of nostalgia in Swig covered in old black-and-white family photos of well-dressed relatives contributed by his customers. Gordon, who’s signed 10-year leases on both spaces, has ideas to redevelop other commercial properties along the block.

The space between his location and the adjacent building would be perfect for an outside performance pavilion, Gordon says. He has aligned himself with other upwardly mobile black professionals “affiliated with trying to rebrand and rebirth what Auburn Avenue used to be,” he says. “And it doesn’t necessarily have to be all black. The basis and the root of this space is African-American, but we can get all types of folks down to Auburn Avenue.”

If anything, he says, it’s the past that’s holding back progress.

“A lot of this stuff has been maintained by the old regime for so long, they don’t understand that in order to change or repopulate this area you’re going to have to allow the new generation to come in,” he says.

By “old regime” Gordon means churches such as Wheat Street Baptist and Big Bethel A.M.E., which owns the lot next to his future lounge, as well as the mostly vacant storefronts stretching to the corner of Jesse Hill Jr. Drive. After the black elite vacated in the wake of civil rights gains, institutions such as Big Bethel, with its neon-lit “Jesus Saves” sign on the steeple, became default stewards of a deserted neighborhood.

But Gordon says neighborhood preservation efforts have kept it from prospering in recent years along with the rest of Old Fourth Ward and Edgewood Avenue, one block south of Auburn. He points to a sign outside the Royal Peacock as proof. Broken and beat up, it’s one of many encased FreedomWalk markers bearing Martin Luther King’s likeness that was originally funded by the National Park Service and the City of Atlanta.

“That’s disrespectful. But you call this ‘historic’? You’re preserving trash,” Gordon says. “Up and down this street, you’ve got all these abandoned buildings just sitting here. And you’ve got people who own these lots asking for astronomical amounts of money. The buildings really should be condemned or knocked down. Or the city should say, if you own a building on Auburn Avenue and it’s not up to code, either you fix it or you lose it.”

It seems like common sense, on one hand. But I can’t help wondering how those same words would sound coming out of a white developer’s mouth. It’s part of the reason that Auburn Avenue doesn’t fit the typical gentrification narrative.

It was an insidious plot from the start.

White city planners eager to clear Atlanta of Old Fourth Ward’s “black slum” proposed relocating Auburn Avenue’s thriving African-American business district along with it.

The year was 1952, as former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Gary Pomerantz recounts in Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, his 1996 nonfiction tome on the city’s intersection of race and power. The Metropolitan Atlanta Planning Commission, composed of seven white men, held the future of Sweet Auburn in its hands. The commission members had already heard the uproar from leaders within Atlanta’s black community, but at a public hearing on June 3, John Wesley Dobbs addressed the commission directly.

The man known as the unofficial mayor of “Sweet Auburn” — a term Dobbs is also credited with coining — proceeded to explain why “the richest Negro street in America,” according to a Forbes magazine article that would come out five years later, was far from slum.

“It is true that we are poor people, liberated only 85 years ago, without education or money,” Dobbs said. “And yet in the last 50 years we have acquired property along Auburn Avenue, built businesses like the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, which now has more than $25 million in assets; the Citizens Trust Company, a member of the Federal Reserve Banking System, with more than $5 million in assets; Atlanta Mutual Building and Loan Association, with more than $1.5 million in assets; The Atlanta Daily World, the only Negro daily newspaper in America; a broadcasting station, WERD, 860 on your dial.”

Dobbs went on to draw comparisons, suggesting Auburn Avenue was as significant to black Atlanta as Broadway was to Manhattan.

“‘Sweet Auburn’ Avenue, ladies and gentleman, is not a slum street. Physically it looks just as good as Edgewood Avenue. ‘Sweet’ Auburn is not over behind the railroad tracks. It runs straight into Peachtree Street. When you go up ‘Sweet Auburn,’ you are going to town, that’s all.”

If the memorial to Dobbs at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Fort Street could speak, it would probably eat those words today. Barely a shell of the street it once was, Sweet Auburn turned sour as desegregation brought on the exodus of African-American wealth.

Thirty years after Dobbs — grandfather to Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson — backed down the all-white Metropolitan Atlanta Planning Commission’s effort at writing off Auburn Avenue’s thriving business district as a “slum,” one of Dobbs’ grandsons drew the reverse conclusion.

Dobbs Jordan, cousin to then-mayor Jackson, was a new Atlanta police officer assigned to Zone 2 on Auburn Avenue. As he patrolled the street on foot, he “noted the deterioration of Auburn, the boarded-up cafes, the winos wandering at night,” Pomerantz writes.

Today the street is full of dilapidated buildings with sagging exteriors and crumbling bricks. For every storefront in use, it seems like two or three are vacant, with “space available” signs begging for tenants and other signs warning “keep out.” At the corner of Jesse Hill Jr. Drive, yellow caution tape covers a boarded-up structure. A couple of blocks away, the former American Legion building sits empty and in similar condition. Once a source of pride, the former home of Atlanta Life Insurance, a Beaux Arts building built in the late 1800s, and its adjacent neoclassical annex, are now symbols of despair.

Atlanta Police Department records show more than 200 crimes committed over the past year in a five-block area of Auburn Avenue that includes the commercial district. They range from drug abuse violations to larceny and theft.

Two years ago, Sweet Auburn landed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” for the second time since 1992. In the National Trust’s assessment report, it cites “the inherent historic and cultural legacy” embedded within many abandoned properties as one of the unique challenges to redevelopment. “The need is for a viable economic development strategy that builds on the character and legacy of the properties,” it reads.

As I snap a cellphone photo of the Odd Fellows Building, I hear a voice call out. “You taking a picture of this old-ass shit?” Alton Harris asks. He’s standing across the street, in front of the 1912 structure that covers the whole 200 block on Auburn Avenue’s north side. It once housed a 1,300-seat auditorium used as a movie theater for African-Americans during segregation. Today many of its commercial spaces are vacant, with “space available” signs decorating some of the windows in the main six-story tower.

Harris worked as a maintenance man at the historic Odd Fellows Building for 22 years. An off-the-job accident last year put him out of commission. Now he does his best to stretch out his Social Security check.

Half a block away, the windows of the Black Lion Café contain nearly enough bullet holes to stand for the number of years proprietor Abraham Gebru has owned the place. In the decade and a half since the Ethiopian immigrant moved to Atlanta from Chicago, he’s seen the worst of what the street has to offer. Last year a stray bullet struck a club patron during a shootout between rival dope boys across the street, he says.

On a separate occasion, a stray ricocheted off the wall behind the club’s DJ booth. The DJ had just stepped away to refill his drink at the bar. Otherwise, says Gebru, he would’ve been hit.

“This isn’t Baghdad or Afghanistan,” he says. “It’s Auburn Avenue.”

Still, he keeps the second floor windows boarded up. He welcomes any new development that will be an upgrade to the neighborhood. “We need change on Auburn Avenue. That doesn’t mean the history is going to go away,” he says.

To sneak a peek at Auburn’s possible future, stroll past the pop-up shops sprinkled at opposite ends of the commercial district, near Courtland and Hilliard streets. Run mostly by young local entrepreneurs with consumer-driven e-commerce startups, this is most of the small-business owners’ first brick-and-mortar locations.

New-age meditation classes on Auburn? Arbitrary Living pop-up owner Quianah Upton hosted a handful of sessions in her shop for a couple of weeks.

A July 4 barbecue with complimentary Dos Equis on ice and Sofa King Evil on the mix? It went down at Fresh.I.Am’s pop-up, with the turnout spilling into the lot next door.

More than 100 retailers and businesses applied to participate in the free Downtown Pop-Up program offering storefronts with no overhead, administered by the nonprofit Central Atlanta Progress. (Full disclosure: As a co-sponsor, Creative Loafing participated in selecting the finalists. I played a small role in that process.)

When the program started in June, it was supposed to coincide with the grand opening of the streetcar, which Mayor Kasim Reed now says will start moving before year’s end. In the meantime, walk-in traffic is slow on weekends and even slower on weekdays, according to many of the pop-up owners. Some participants have accepted offers to extend their stay past the originally projected program end in August. Others are considering whether leasing long-term space directly from the participating landlords at market rate would be worth it.

It’s hard to make that determination before the streetcar starts rolling. But if part of the program’s initiative was to use this as a case study or a socioeconomic incubator to attract new vibrancy Downtown, it hasn’t been a total wash.

“People are still getting to know Auburn as a shopping district,” Upton says. “But what’s happening now is a testament to the history of this area.”

Several of the pop-up owners claim their own roots to the area, like A.C. Smallwood of locally sourced jewelry and clothing boutique the Byrd’s Box, whose father grew up nearby.

“This side of Auburn versus the other side is night and day,” she says, comparing Old Fourth Ward’s residential area to the commercial district. “And that’s just how Atlanta is. It’s just a matter of getting people to see that we don’t have to be segregated.”

While clothing retailers like the subscription-based Sock Fancy may seem like an odd fit for the unrefined and pre-gentrified Auburn Avenue, others are well themed for the area. The Civil Bikes pop-up facilitates guided tours through intown sites connected to the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Proprietor and Atlanta native Nedra Deadwyler is a sociologist by training. A bookshelf inside the shop holds a handful of telling titles, including Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948 by Clifford Kuhn and K.M. Kruse’s White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.

But there’s also a feeling among some longtime commercial tenants in the area that CAP’s pop-up program isn’t respectful of Auburn’s past.

“The only reason you’re ‘pop-ping up,’” said one longtime business owner who wished to remain anonymous, “is because of the efforts that were laid before.”

According to CAP Vice President Jennifer Ball, the nonprofit is using a state grant to fund a collection of historic photographs underneath the Downtown Connector showcasing the street’s notable people, events, and buildings, as well as plaques detailing some of Auburn’s lost history. She says another new nonprofit called Sweet Auburn Works will act to protect the historic district’s past and the vision moving forward.

In a sense the pop-up shops represent a generational divide between Auburn’s future and its past. I strike up a conversation around the corner at Burden’s Barber Shop on Hilliard Street with 72-year-old barber Seaborn Johnson. “This used to be the street,” he says. “It was live. Best food. Best restaurants. Best clubs. Best bars. We didn’t have to go Downtown for nothing.”

But he also remembers the eventual downfall: “We lost togetherness; we got separated. Nobody sticks together. I’ve seen this street come and go.”

When I ask him which direction he thinks things are headed, he says two words: “White folk.”

“I wish them all the luck in the world,” he says. “Good luck to them.”

Later that day, at the ModernTribe pop-up, where even the cotton candy is kosher, I share Johnson’s sentiments about the future of Auburn with manager Caryn Liss to get her thoughts.

“I don’t know that Atlanta has done a good job of preserving and respecting this area,” she says. “But Martin Luther King’s vision was for us all to be together, live, work, and play together. It is historically a black area, but I think there are going to be a few owners who are white, and that’s going to make the area diverse. ... And sometimes it takes new, fresh blood ... to take it from the legacy of where it’s been and move it forward. It’s not negating where it’s been. This is just an homage to the history of the area.”

Sporting a well-worn pair of cowboy boots and a 5 o’clock shadow, Gene Kansas looks every bit the role of the urban frontiersman.

“Welcome to the Neighborhood,” reads the sign in the window behind him, announcing the coming of locally owned juice outfit Arden’s Garden. It’s the first tenant he’s contracted for his historic rehabilitation of the former two-story home to the Atlanta Daily World, the nation’s first black-owned daily newspaper.

He purchased the building in January 2014 from the family of publisher Alexis Scott after an initial deal with Integral Group was scrapped when Atlanta preservationists learned of the potential buyer’s intent to demolish portions of it for an apartment complex. A petition against the deal, posted by the Historic District Development Corporation, garnered 1,100 signatures.

In a city known for putting progress before preservation, it was a rare save. And Kansas intends to see the building’s historic rehabilitation through. As he says, “Let’s not build over our history, let’s build up our history.”

Before the Daily World moved its executive offices to 145 Auburn Ave. in 1950, it was home to Virgil Coffee Company and a live jazz venue called the Poinciana Club. Kansas will lease two 1,250-square-foot residential apartments on the second floor for $1,700 per month, which he says is slightly below the current market rate for the area. The plaque recognizing the building as a “historic site in journalism” will remain intact.

It’s the kind of redevelopment Kansas has become known for since his firm oversaw a 2009 redesign competition that will allow the Clermont Hotel in Poncey-Highland to retain some of its historic character as it is transformed into a boutique hotel.

While he’s equally committed to “keeping the integrity and still making money” with the Daily World project, he says he also recognizes the challenges that come with revitalizing Auburn Avenue.

“It’s complicated because it’s got a rich history, but it’s also got a history of a lot of strife,” he says regarding the decay that took hold after the ’60s. “That’s part of the blessing and the curse of the Civil Rights Movement.”

While Kansas understands the concern some have about the potential change the streetcar could bring to the historic character of Sweet Auburn, he says the neighborhood’s future will be determined by the intentions of those who come seeking opportunity.

“Streetcars don’t wipe out history,” he says. “People wipe out history.”

“The old Auburn does not exist,” says Tree Walker. Like his name suggests, he’s a tall man with a lumbering walk who’s regularly seen standing watch at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Hilliard Street. The Masonic temple on the corner is still the headquarters of the active Prince Hall Masons lodge once presided over by Dobbs.

Walker, who lives in the Temple’s basement, also oversees the building as its maintenance man. He’s what de Forest refers to as one of the “old-guard foot soldiers” of the movement. And if you ask about the changes he’s witnessed over the years on Auburn, he makes it plain.

“You had to be on Auburn Avenue when Auburn was Auburn to know how much it’s changed,” he says.

On the Temple’s first floor, he walks through the room that once held King’s private office. Two frayed tan couches occupy the space now. Walker points to a back staircase that descends to the basement, where he says Dobbs would exit every night to avoid leaving out the same door he entered — just in case someone was waiting on the other side during the heat of the movement.

When asked why he thinks the street went down so quickly following desegregation, he says, “All the black people either sold out or they bought in,” he says.

Though he’s been on Auburn Avenue since he was 16, the Morris Brown alum says he sees no future there for people like him. “The streetcar wasn’t meant for us,” he says, referring to the district as a “tourist area.”

“To me, the same man they murdered is the same man they’re making money off of. We’ve lost some of our important history. It’s only a memory. The dream is gone.”

When I set out on this random walking tour two weeks ago, I wanted to avoid the obvious stops for a reason. There’s a tendency to reduce Sweet Auburn’s heritage to the monumental accomplishments of a few iconic men. As deserving as they are, they’re only half the narrative. But there’s more to this street than old buildings with historic markers — or “tombstones,” as one young Mason referred to them.

Whatever Auburn Avenue is on the way to becoming, I imagine we’re going to have to live with it for the next hundred years. And that’s no moral injunction. What’s happening on Auburn is no different than what’s happening in inner cities all over the nation. The one thing that sets it apart, sets Atlanta apart, is our prominent role in this 20th-century legacy. Sometimes we get so caught up in the future of this town that we forget we’ve already made history. Every now and then, it’s good to be reminded.